ON 5 October 1936, my predecessor, Bishop James Gordon, blessed the Jarrow Marchers as they left on their 26-day journey to London. At least, I like to think he did. As Stuart Maconie points out, however, there are a great many unreliable facts and stories about the Jarrow March.
In October 2016, the 80th anniversary of the march, just after the Brexit vote and with his own considerable uncertainty about Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, Maconie sets out to retrace the steps of the 200 marchers and their dog. He sets out to see what — if anything — has changed in the intervening years.
Maconie does nothing to hide his sympathies — he is a Remainer waiting to be convinced about Jeremy Corbyn — and the book comes out as more a series of essays than a travelogue. Learning that A-level Art History is to be scrapped, Maconie digresses into a reflection on Picasso’s Guernica. Staying in Barnsley, he tells us what Orwell thought of it, and we are treated to a happy digression about The Road to Wigan Pier.
His research is impressive. I did not know that Leeds was the world capital of “muscle jazz”: apparently, a wild and technically daunting mix of rock and jazz. Nor did I know that you could tell the vintage of a curry house by its name.
Ultimately, this is a deeply passionate book. The prevalence of marinated olives and military memorabilia in the market at St Albans contrasts, for the author, with the cheap Spiderman duvets and Fast and Furious DVDs in Barnsley market. This symbolises for him a divided nation, where people still do not understand each other’s lives in the same way as, in 1936, the Bishop of Durham condemned the marchers as a revolutionary mob, and the Labour Party and TUC frowned on the march — something on which Maconie might have expanded.
Christmas is approaching, and reviewers must be forgiving. Maconie is from Wigan, which in the north-east is almost south. So perhaps he can be forgiven for what is almost the sin against the Holy Ghost — at least to a bishop, or anyone living in Gateshead — when he dares to say that the Angel of the North is part of “the cultural fabric of Newcastle”. Any north-east schoolchild can tell him that it is well and truly planted in Gateshead — which is definitely not Newcastle.
This is a book for the day after Boxing Day. It is an easy read, but its message of a divided nation, chilling echoes of 1936, and its question who is fighting the corner of the weak and vulnerable needs a much clearer head than I may have on the day after Christmas.
The Rt Revd Mark Bryant is the Bishop of Jarrow.
Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now
Ebury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30